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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee - 29/04/2016 - Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016

BISSET, Mr Jon, Chief Executive Officer, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia

LETCH, Ms Kath, Consultant, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia

SICE, Mr David, Technical Consultant, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia

CHAIR: The hearing is now resumed, and I welcome representatives of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege on evidence and the protection of witnesses has been provided to you all. Is that correct?

Mr Bisset : Yes.

CHAIR: I invite you to make a brief opening statement, and then the committee will ask questions after that.

Mr Bisset : Thanks for the opportunity to present today. I want to give you a bit of a brief overview of community broadcasting. The community broadcasting sector is large, extremely diverse, independent and not-for-profit broadcasting, so all of our organisations and broadcasters are not-for-profit organisations. Community radio services play a really important role in the Australian media landscape. They reflect a broad range of community interests and produce high levels of local content, and the sector is regarded internationally as one of the most successful examples of community media. Australia's first radio station was licensed in 1972, and there are currently about 450 licensed community broadcasters across the country, ranging from metropolitan-wide services in capital cities to remote Indigenous services throughout the country, with over 70 per cent of the services operating in regional, rural and remote areas.

As I mentioned, community radio is as broad and diverse as the Australian community itself. It includes Indigenous, youth, ethnic, multicultural, educational, Christian, Muslim, community access, seniors, LGBT, community and classical music, and arts services; the radio reading network, for people with a print disability; and a broad range of general community services. In regional and rural areas, general community stations engage a wide community network with programs and content produced and presented by local members of the community and reflecting many of those local interests, including news and information. They are often referred to as the cultural glue in smaller communities.

Community radio services make a substantial contribution to the profile of local Australian artists and musicians and are an important part of cultural content production and creative communities that support innovation, community development and social engagement. Community broadcasting services support training and vocational skills and development in metropolitan and also in regional areas and across all age groups. They have been recognised as the feeding ground in media arts technology in many cultural industries.

Community broadcasters play a vital role in maintaining genuine media diversity, especially in regional areas, and are a key player in the mix of primary radio services. More than five million people tune into community owned and operated radio services each week—that is 27 per cent of the radio listening audience aged 15 plus. As the Prime Minister, when he was Minister for Communications, summarised:

Community radio is a very valuable platform to communicate to our constituents and is often the only media available to regional and remote communities.

As we are all aware, there has been some enormous change in broadcasting and media technologies over the past decade or so. That is driving media reforms, spectrum review, the recent inquiry into broadcasting online content and live production to regional and rural Australia by the House of Representatives, and a review of ACMA.

All media is now operating in a multiplatform environment, and community broadcasters are providing free-to-air services in analog and digital where available, online audio streaming, podcasts, catch-up radio, online information and, of course, social media content. The Broadcasting Services Act and the codes of practice enshrine the fundamental principles that guide the operation of community broadcasting as free-to-air and freely available not-for-profit public broadcasting services.

The CBAA supports the role of the media regulator, ACMA, across all media sectors. This ensures that community broadcasting licensees adhere to the objectives of the act and to community engagement principles in their services and operation. A regulated broadcasting environment across the community, commercial and national broadcasting sectors has provided a diverse, open, democratic and pluralistic media structure that supports a vibrant and tolerant Australian culture.

The potential for media ownership reforms as expressed in the broadcasting legislation amendment has led to concerns about the future of local broadcasting and content in both radio and television, including a potential loss of local newsrooms and content production, local employment and local voices. We appreciate that the committee is considering measures to ensure that this does not happen, and the role of local community broadcasting services is important to recognise and be acknowledged and supported by the government in the context of any potential reforms.

There are a multitude of community radio services in every locality, all with local production and studio facilities, producing local news, information and content. Local voices and local information are identified as primary services for listening to community radio in national listener surveys that we conduct and have conducted for the last 15 years. In addition, Indigenous services are first-line services to Indigenous first nation communities across metropolitan, regional and remote areas.

Community radio stations provide an extremely high level of social return on investment for the government's investment of $16.88 million, which was delivered to the community broadcasting program this year by the department of communications. Community stations, however, are largely self-funded through community support via sponsorship and subscriptions and operate with the support of over 20,000 volunteers nationally.

Community radio produces an average of 142 hours of locally produced content each week. One-third of community stations report that they are the only radio broadcaster producing local programming in their area and 42 per cent of regional and rural stations are operated entirely by volunteers. Thirty per cent of stations produce in-house news. In addition the CBAA distributes a national news service produced at 2MCE in Bathurst in partnership with Charles Sturt University. An average of 39 per cent of all music programming on community radio is Australian music and stations also produce a high level of arts and cultural content and information.

Radio is well down the track of refashioning itself in a digital and multiplatform environment. Analog-only broadcasting is not our future. Radio is long-form listening. On average, listeners listen for 15.6 hours per week to community radio. In major cities, where it is available, 24 per cent of all radio listening is now free-to-air digital radio and a further 11 per cent digital radio online, either via a fixed broadband or on a mobile. These are significant figures and will increase as digital radio becomes more prevalent in cars and mobile broadband devices.

The government has a long-term public policy commitment to ensure access to digital platforms for community radio and that access is on the basis of being affordable to the community broadcasters. The policy position of digital inclusion for community radio is critical to the future of community services. The policy is implemented in two ways: digital radio legislation provides that digital multiplex capacity is reserved for community broadcasters under shared transmission arrangements with commercial broadcasters and a level of federal government support for basic platform costs of linking data and transmission for community digital radio services.

Metropolitan services operate in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. The stations are independently meeting the costs of content generation and associated operational costs. It is critical that current community digital radio services are maintained with ongoing government funding support for digital transmission. Equally critical is the inclusion of regional community radio services in regional digital radio planning and the CBAA is participating in the Digital Radio Planning Committee for Regional Australia chaired by ACMA.

Digitising free-to-air radio delivery to regional areas and for all Australians is a significant public policy, planning and practical challenge. Ensuring a primary set of free-to-air radio services is maintained as media digitises is an important policy objective with longstanding government support and valuable public interest outcomes. It is critical that the role of community radio services in supporting local content and community engagement is supported in the digital transition process.

It will take time to provide universal coverage of digital free-to-air services and may require online and mobile delivery to some areas. Broadband delivery will not be free of charge to the user and, in the interests of social equity and inclusion principles, the CBAA supports a set of primary broadcast services being available to the public as free services. A complementary strategy to ensure spectrum efficiency of digital broadcast radio would be to introduce legislation to require mobile network operators and internet service providers to provide zero rated or unmetered delivery of a primary set of free-to-air radio broadcast services.

In summary, community broadcasting services provide media diversity and high levels of local content and information relevant to their communities. They are diverse, not for profit and an important part of the Australian media landscape, providing essential free-to-air broadcast services that are recognised and supported by the government and require ongoing support and acknowledgement. The future of media and broadcasting is digital, and community broadcasters must be supported in the digital media transition process, as are other broadcast sectors. Thank you for the opportunity to present today, and we look forward to some questions.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Bisset.

Senator URQUHART: In relation to the figure of $16.88 million which you get from government investment: is that per annum?

Mr Bisset : That is the per annum figure for this year. Yes.

Senator URQUHART: You said that you get some sponsorship through philanthropy and in other ways. In terms of your overall running costs, what is the percentage?

Mr Bisset : To an ordinary, average community radio station, do you mean?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Mr Bisset : An average station will have between eight per cent and 10 per cent of their revenue coming from government grants. It varies quite significantly from station to station.

Senator URQUHART: So it is about eight per cent to 10 per cent. So the other 90 per cent is raised through sponsorship, volunteers and a whole range of things?

Mr Bisset : Sponsorship, fundraising and other sources.

Senator URQUHART: And then your costs are lessened because you have volunteers that perform what would normally be a paid function?

Mr Bisset : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: What does the bill before us today mean to your members?

Mr Sice : If I can give a broader answer—

Senator URQUHART: Absolutely.

Mr Sice : Primarily, the bill is about the 75 per cent reach rule and the two-out-of-three in a market rule and is adding some incentives for local content. I want to be indulged with your time for a minute to talk about that local content part—

Senator URQUHART: Absolutely.

Mr Sice : because I think that is the main interaction. The other two issues are more for commercial television industries.

Senator URQUHART: That has been quite important, particularly for rural and regional areas.

Mr Sice : Firstly, there is a sense that the proposals that you are considering are just the first step in legislative change around media and so forth as a result of digitisation—and the minister has made comments to that effect. So that is sort of on the table. I noticed a number of the other submitters are vexing over how the whole picture might fit together rather than just this bit.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, I think so. Most witnesses have indicated that this would be their preference of a first step.

Mr Sice : Sorry?

Senator URQUHART: Most witnesses are saying that this is probably a first step, but there needs to be a lot broader reform.

Mr Sice : There needs to be more, yes; I agree. You keep hearing about antisiphoning: the idea that some content is considered of such significance that every opportunity is afforded to it to be made available on a free-to-air basis. The public policy reason is that not everybody can afford a pay TV or Foxtel subscription, for instance. What flows from that is central to this sector, in that some things need and ought to be freely available to the public. There is a set of issues that flow from that, which John has already touched on, about the need for a broadcast platform, as media digitises, to continue to be available to bring services—a primary set of essential services that add diversity and cultural inclusion—to an area on a free-to-air basis. That is the broadcast platform. Where that maybe is not possible in a time line that is sensible or at a cost that is sensible—in some regional areas in particular—you might look at mobile broadband or online delivery alternatives. The problem there is that there is a cost to the user. As John said, one suggestion at a policy level would be to introduce legislative arrangements that require licensed broadcast radio services, at least, to be available on an unmetered basis to users. That then means, 'Who cares how you get it—you have got it—as long as it is free; you have got access to it.'

Back to the localism point, though: the idea of the legislation is to introduce a set of incentives around an idea of points—moving it from 120 points up to 150, for instance, which is a minute of time per week, but there are some extra points for minutes if it is local news. I think one minute of local news is two points, for instance, and so forth. It is really interesting. That is television. If you think about how many minutes 150 points add up to in a week, it is one or 2½ hours a week of local content. You contrast that with what Jon mentioned that the average community radio station does in terms of locally presented material, and it is 142 hours a week, not 1½ to two. But it is completely different in character, of course. It is about being very local, and in small towns maybe it is hokey. It is about the mayor being heard.

I will tell a little story. I was in my old home town in Tasmania on Wednesday. I arrived at the airport. The local community station were having an event to celebrate their existence and history. I got in the car to drive into town and turned the station on, and by the time I got into town I had heard about the local fracas in the local council about the big signage issue that was going on and about which councillor had said what. At the event later in the evening, I met all the presenters at the station—some old, some new; some long term, some new; some old, some young; quite a diverse mix. You have the woman with cerebral palsy who does the country music program and who comes in every week to do that. You have the local lay preacher who comes in, and he volunteers as the vice-president of the organisation. You have the mayor—it was a civic reception. The mayor and all the local politicians are there. You have the local guitarist. His life is his guitar, and he presents music on that basis. It is not just music; it is about contextualising it to the community. And all of those things add up to something that is really quite special in the way that is it local. It is different to a television or a generalist media newsfeed doing a local story.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, it is the whole picture really, isn't it?

Mr Sice : It is completely inclusive. The 142 hours is very different to 1½ hours in that way. Radio is very different to television in that way.

Just to conclude: I remember doing some work years ago on regional television for the department and so forth. I do not think I am speaking out of school. An interesting anecdote is that, when you went around and spoke to the local community and you asked the mayor, or whoever it was, in the local communities what they wanted from their television, the first thing was not that they wanted local television; the first thing was that they wanted what the people in the big cities have, thank you very much, on their television screens. They want the big shows. Radio is completely different. That is a point I want to make.

Senator URQUHART: Do you think there are enough, or there are adequate, protections for diversity within the bill? Given that your situation is probably different to some mainstream, do you think there are enough protections for that diversity?

Ms Letch : I think there is within the scope of what we understand commercial and national services to be. There is also a kind of sensible-look economy of scale that has to be applied within those broadcast services. I imagine the responses to that, in terms of the broad Australian community, would vary depending on location. I think that highlights the fact that the three broadcast sectors working together—community, commercial, national—are a way in which communities, whether they are very small, remote communities or they are large communities, get a full range of services that are quite different services. From a CBAA membership perspective and in relation to the public discourse around the bill, while they fully appreciate that, in a sense, the primary objectives are an impact for commercial broadcasters, there is a way in which that public discussion can, at times, exclude the role of community services. But, at a community perspective level, that mix is very important. It is the way that a full range of issues, as David was saying, both national issues which people wish to engage with and international issues—regardless of where you live, you want to have an engagement with that, but you also want to have an engagement with your local network. I think that is what we get by that mix of services.

Senator McKENZIE: Can I just clarify. When you say 'national broadcaster', you mean the public broadcaster?

Ms Letch : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Do you think there are adequate protections for local content within the bill, given that you have a very large local content compared to maybe commercial radio? Do you think there are adequate protections in the bill?

Mr Sice : I think I would echo what Kath said: yes, so long as there is an affirmation—which maybe you might like to add into the mix—of the important role of the community broadcasting sector, because the legislation is silent. The legislation does not mention it.

Senator URQUHART: Were you consulted about the proposed bill?

Mr Bisset : We were not invited to make a submission, but we were subsequently invited to attend this hearing.

Senator URQUHART: But what about the bill in general? Did the government actually talk to you about the changes proposed in the bill?

Mr Bisset : No.

Ms Letch : No. I think that is the short answer.

Senator URQUHART: Do you think that is because you are seen as a different type of provider as opposed to commercial, because you are effectively an independent not-for-profit as opposed to—

Ms Letch : Yes, and the primary impact in terms of the reach rule and the two-out-of-three rule does not impact on the structure of our services. Where it does impact is around the area of local services.

Mr Sice : And content—the complexion of content available in an area. I guess maybe the sector's role is so unassailable that it is assumed as being there. There is positive spin!

Senator URQUHART: You obviously have an interest in the bill, given that you are here today talking to us about it, which is great, because I think it is one area where we are interested to hear about the issues that you have got and how this might affect you.

Ms Letch : Could I just add to that—

Senator URQUHART: Yes, sure.

Ms Letch : because I think one of the important distinctions, news and information, often gets rolled together. I think that in the context of local content they are quite different things. News is often a news bulletin. I think part of the concern is about actual local production at a very local level, which is different to broad regional areas, and the role of information is a much broader role, a role that is much more community based and connected to people's interests and issues than just news, or what we think of as news. At times I think that local content can be drilled down into too narrow a definition in the way it is discussed or amalgamated, when the community sense of that is a lot to do with discussion of their own local issues. And that requires it to be in that place.

Senator URQUHART: Do you support the removal of the two-out-of-three rule?

Mr Bisset : We tend not to have a position on it. It does not directly affect our operations.

Senator McKENZIE: I think all my questions have been already addressed.

CHAIR: As there are no further questions, thank you very much, all of you, for appearing today. We greatly appreciate your evidence.

Senator McKENZIE: I really did enjoy being a presenter on Inverloch community radio down in South Gippsland.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Bisset, are we able to have a copy of your opening statement?

Mr Bisset : Sure.

Senator URQUHART: If you are happy to table it, that would be really useful because there is some great information in it. Thank you, that is really useful.

Mr Bisset : I have got dates scribbled on it.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for appearing, and thank you very much for your statements.